Port of Seattle Initiative Seeks to Save Youth Jobs

by Bunthay Cheam


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a toll on the economy, the Port of Seattle has unveiled a program to help provide economic relief to communities that have been hit the hardest by the economic downturn, especially Black and brown communities.

On Thursday June 26, the Port announced a youth employment program called the “Opportunity Initiative” which seeks to employ 220 youth, with an emphasis on South King County. The program is slated to begin this summer.

According to a post by the Port of Seattle, “Youth unemployment tripled during the pandemic, from a typical range around 8%, to 27 and 25 % in April and May.”

In order to find the areas most impacted by the economic downturn, the Port turned to data from  the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries and King County.

“We started to look at all of that data and put the indicators on top of each other to look at the impact in King County and South King County,” said Bookda Gheisar, Senior Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion for the Port of Seattle. “[South King County] is where we’ve seen the highest rates of unemployment for that population of 16 to 24 years old — which is around 40% right now.” 

The Port is funding the program with $1.5 million as part of a larger $3 million economic injection by the Port into King County.

The program will follow four career tracks: maritime, aviation, construction, and green jobs.

“We did not want to just be looking at, [as] one of our commissioners said, ‘just handing a youth a rake to clean a park.’” said Gheisar. “We wanted to look at jobs that actually put young people on a career track. So that’s why we looked at organizations like Goodwill [Seattle], Urban League [of Metropolitan Seattle], which are organizations that have curriculums for pre-apprenticeship training, apprenticeship training, and then job placements.” 

Organizations collaborating with the Port as part of this program also include Seattle Parks Foundation, Partners in Employment (PIE), and The Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (AJAC).

In turn, these organizations will engage with youth through their existing programs or partner with other community-based organizations and nonprofits to connect with candidates.

There’s also hope that this program will help address access to the Port for Black and brown communities.

“You live in a port city, you know, right here on the water and many of them don’t really know what maritime is,” said LeAsia Johnson of Seattle Goodwill about the youth she works with during a virtual press conference for the Opportunity Initiative.

Seattle Goodwill runs several youth programs that include The Youth Maritime Program (YMP) and the Youth Aerospace Program.

“We have a lot of youth that are really just existing within their communities and not really living within their communities,” said Johnson, reflecting on the hopes of the Opportunity Initiative.

“Our programs just give them a whole new world of opportunities that they never thought that they would come in contact with.”

“Historically our youths of color weren’t represented in the [Port] internships, they have had 100 interns per year, every summer, but there wasn’t a lot of representation,” said Paulina Lopez, Executive Director of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition (DRCC).

DRCC partners with the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps, which—via the Seattle Parks Foundation—will have 10 of its youths placed among the 220 the Opportunity Initiative will employ.

Lopez envisions helping build more community capacity with the Opportunity Initiative: “Supporting community-based organization, bringing our youth to the Port Community Action Team, to the Duwamish Valley Affordable Housing Coalition, so in a way it’s giving support to their organizations, but also organizations providing some mentorship for youth leadership.” 

The Port Community Action Team and the Duwamish Valley Affordable Housing Coalition are two of several organizations active in the Duwamish Valley.

The Opportunity Initiative also offers a chance for the Opportunity Initiative partners to learn even more from each other.

“I’ve learned so much from our youth as our youth are learning from us and our partners, said Johnson about her program. “It just amazes me the creativity that they come up with.”

The Duwamish Valley Youth Corps and DRCC helped advocate for the Port’s Duwamish Valley Community Equity Program. “Green jobs is probably the one that we all know the least about because it’s just been added through a policy directive which primarily came from the connection to the DRCC and the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps.” said Gheisar.

“These partnerships have brought up green jobs as a critical pathway for the future [of] the Port,” Gheisar said.

Port Commissioner Stephanie Bowman wrapped up a virtual press conference by unveiling the Opportunity Initiative and highlighting the value of Port relationships with its neighbors.

“We put this program together in about six weeks, it came together very quickly,” Bowman said.   “We couldn’t have done this on our own at the Port of Seattle, it was only possible with the relationships that we have with these nonprofits and so I just really want to thank them, they’re going to be the ones doing the hard work.”

The Emerald published an article about the steep decline in youth employment after the last two recessions, how youth employment patterns and opportunities have changed over the years, and the disparities between White youth employment and PoC youth employment. Read that article here.


Bunthay Cheam was born in the Khao I Dang refugee camp. He is a storyteller, activist, and lifelong resident of South Park.

Featured image: A youth participates in the Port of Seattle’s internship program. (Photo courtesy of The Port of Seattle)